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A New Wall


When I was fifteen I wanted to be World Tennis Champ. I batted balls off the wall at PS 101 because Queen of Martyrs’ fence boxed you in making rallies a chore. I brought two or three scruffy tennis balls, tattooed with spoke marks from my ten-speed.

My strokes were eh – form isn’t everything. The b-ballers snickered at my spastic backhand and my lack of rhythm, how my sneakers stuttered all over the pimpled concrete.

I pretended to play real matches squaring off pros from all over the globe. Round one: Miroslav Mecir entered the grandstand. I whacked forehand after backhand, hustled for drop shots, let lobs sail off so I could race them down, my blood rushing gangbusters through me. I was sure I’d cough up an organ.

If I didn’t particularly like a player and the rally lasted too long I’d shank the ball into the imaginary net or take a fatal double bounce. Whatever number I clocked in would stand for that pro. Mecir made twenty-three hits. That was the number to beat.

Next Gianlucca Pozzi stepped to the baseline. He had the puniest serve on the tour, but the guts of a gladiator. I always played harder for Pozzi. I liked saying his name. Gian-lucca. I cocked my elbow inches from by ribs simulating his backhand. I grunted. If the ball took a funky bounce I had a line’s judge call it out.

Just like the real Pozzi my avatar made early exits. But once in a while, I’d let him squeeze into the Semis. I pondered impending rivals. What if Agassi fell to Zivojinovich, or if Pernfors pulled a hamstring?

One day some twerp stopped to admire me. He stood in a vapid pose like a lawn jockey or a midget butler in-training. He wiped his runny nose allegro con brio onto his shoulder sleeve. He would have waited all day if I let him, but I pitied the kid and tossed him the skuzziest ball. He bobbled it then kicked it with his unlaced docksider, his white tube socks shimmied down his ankles.

He eyed my racquet as if it was the Holy Grail. I went back to my routine hoping the kid would grow bored and leave. I zoned into a long rally of flat forehands that lined up perfectly with my strings as if I had an electromagnetic Vibrazorb wedged between my catgut. After a crosscourt shot forced me to backpeddle, I caught a glimpse of the kid. I wasn’t sure if he was rooting for me or the wall, but the intensity of his stare unsettled me.

By the thirty-ninth rip, I let the ball scuttle passed me. The kid chased it down and I trailed him to the fence. I did the only decent thing and offered my racquet. But he declined as if I was handing him liverwurst.

I took a deep breath, wiped my sweaty hand on my shorts and continued.

A weird thing happened then. The racquet became an extension of my hand. The red number three on the ball dazzled me as it spun inward, the penumbra of golden fuzz a small scale supernova.

The sanguineous pros paled out of focus and there I was fighting solo against the wall. Each swat blasted back faster, but I didn’t smash through the stone, I burrowed through myself. I fed off a savage burst of energy as if I’d been groomed my whole life to pummel a stone wall. The smell of fresh-laid tar seemed the bud of unknit opportunities soon to take shape. I rose beyond my lazy self and for a fleeting moment I mattered.

My human trophy lulled there, an unsuspecting fan. I found his loyalty both flattering and embarrassing.

When I slipped out of my groove I remembered I wasn’t a champion. The halo of fuzz was just a ball. My wild wish of gracing Wimbledon’s lawn vanished and I was left on the gum-strewn concrete of a neighborhood schoolyard.

At some point, the kid split. I don’t know when because I’d stopped looking. I played a bit longer glad to have been idolized even for a moment. But, for my next session I promised to find a new wall.

John Gorman hails from New York. Some of his recent prose has appeared in the Mississippi Review, The Rose & Thorn, Word Riot, Nexus, Plum Ruby Review, and elsewhere. He is finishing up his MFA at Pacific University in Oregon.